Baby-Led Weaning from Breastfeeding

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Baby eating cookieI am pretty certain that other cultures (and the cave men too) probably give their babies “real” food to explore with.  I suspect that, somewhere along the line, someone thought it would be faster and more efficient (and safer) to puree food for a baby and I can see why it caught on.  No one really likes to see her/his baby gag on anything.  And, big chunks of food in a mouth that has no teeth is intimidating and scary to many parents.  Purees make sense for babies, right?  A growing movement called “Baby-Led Weaning” is touting that purees are NOT the way to go and that letting your baby explore food (being smart and safe about it) is a better way to transition your baby from a liquid to a solid food diet. This may be the oldest new method of weaning from breastfeeding for your baby.

The Theory Behind Baby-Led Weaning

The website, aptly named www.babyledweaning.com says, “Baby-led weaning is…a somewhat cheesy term for just letting your infant self-feed. You cut food up into manageable sticks and offer it, they eat. It’s really pretty simple.”  For the most part, it is simple.

Babies have a strong gag reflex.  My youngest baby even gagged on infant Tylenol and gripe water until he was about 4 months (it was lovely, let me tell you! Anything that touched his tongue other than breastmilk caused all of the breastmilk he had previously had to be ejected.  If you’ve breastfed before, you know that this will drive you and your baby to tears to see that precious milk anywhere but in a bottle or your baby’s belly! ).

Tongue Thrust Reflex

Baby food on baby's faceUntil they are approximately 4-6 months old, babies are programmed to basically push anything foreign out of their mouths.  This is called the tongue thrust reflex and it essentially means that anything you put in that they are not accustomed to (and sometimes even something they are (ever tried to keep a pacifier in a newborn’s mouth???) will be pushed back out by the tongue.  If you force something else in the baby’s mouth (like food) before the reflex is gone, it’s likely going to lead to a lot of frustration for both you and your baby.  This is one reason doctors recommend waiting until at LEAST 4 months to start any sort of solids (The A.A.P. and W.H.O. both now recommend 6 months for breastfed babies to start weaning from breastfeeding.  The recommendations also stem from babies having immature digestive systems and solids are just too hard on their little tummies and intestines.).

Even after 6 months, babies tend to continue to have a strong gag reflex.  This is their natural protection against choking!  This is where Baby-Led Weaning comes in.  If a large chunk of food makes its way into baby’s mouth, this gag reflex will kick in and push it back out before it can lodge in the throat.

I’ve seen pictures and heard stories about parents giving baby a large pork chop (still on the bone) to gnaw on and baby had NO problem with it (and we’re talking a 6-7 month old baby here!).  Babies will quickly learn to move the food around at the front of their mouth (which leads to learning to chew) and choking will not be an issue.  Most Baby-Led Weaners tend to be cautious and not give babies foods that can easily lodge in the throat, but they, as a rule, stay away from purees which are just an extension of the baby’s already liquid diet.

My Experiences with Solid Food

My oldest, Jonathan, is now nine and is the pickiest eater alive (Well, that may be an exaggeration.  He does eat broccoli, after all).  My second youngest, Elijah, is a great eater (Micah, my second one, is somewhere in between.).  Ironically, without knowing the name of it, Baby Led Weaning is essentially what we did to wean Elijah from breastfeeding, but maybe in a less extreme way than what some of the literature out there recommends.

Baby eating peasElijah didn’t show any interest in solids at all until close to 8 months, so I didn’t really push him.  He tried a little here and there, but truly didn’t seem to want anything other than breastmilk until he was much older than my other two had been.  By the time he was ready for solids, he really wanted “real food” and not mashed up purees.  I gave him small pieces of what we were eating from almost day one and he did fine.  So, I went with it since he really pretty much refused purees.

Isaac, my youngest, started showing interest a bit earlier, but now, at 8.5 months, still doesn’t have much of an appetite for solids. He likes to eat something when others are eating, but it’s far from his main source of food.  Because of this (he has no interest in me shoveling food into his mouth!), I’ve let him explore the food that he eats even more than I did with Elijah.  I have given him larger pieces of food earlier and just watched him like a hawk.  To my surprise, he has gagged, but never come close to choking on anything.  It’s messy, for sure, but he’s exploring foods like broccoli, melons, toast, waffles (no syrup!!!),… with no problems.

My Thoughts on Baby-Led Weaning From Breastfeeding?

I am way too nervous to give Isaac a pork chop or a drumstick to go to town on!  That’s beyond my comfort zone.  However, I DO think exploring foods helps babies to appreciate a wide range of textures and tastes while making the transition from liquid to solid foods go a little more smoothly.  I, personally, tend to do a combination of purees/cereals and more solid chunks of food. This method of weaning from breastfeeding works best for me and my baby.

Advantages of Baby-Led Weaning

I think exploring food is good for many reasons beyond avoiding a picky child, including early development of fine motor skills, social skills (eating at the table like a “big boy/girl”!), and just building on natural curiosity.  You have to be committed to letting your child set the pace and be comfortable with breastmilk or formula still, very much, being your baby’s main form of nutrients because they will not eat a lot for quite some time (although Isaac can put away some bread!).  As I mentioned before, it can also be pretty messy!  However, it’s a lot of fun and makes for great photo opportunities!  Every meal is a fun adventure in our house and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Looking for More Info on How to Transition Baby to Solids?

If you are interested in learning more detailed info as well as some recipe ideas for starting your baby on solids, check out our article on this subject. And if you have stories – successful or ones others can learn from, do not hesitate to leave a comment below. We welcome your anecdotes!

Mother of four boys and the wife of a minister in Georgia. The world is full of medical “miracles” but over time and lots of experience, this mom has discovered that raising a natural baby creates the most wonderful bonds and lessons for her children.

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Anonymous
I have to say, I’d just be scared to try this, but my son has had some problems transitioning to solid foods for medical reasons, so maybe if he didn’t have those issues, I might not be so scared of something like this. However, he’s my only child so I don’t know what it’s like to not be concerned about moving too fast with my child’s food. I do see kids that are out at stores and stuff and their parents give them more solid foods, so I think that you are led by your child in most things at this age. What is your baby ready for? What should you be concerned about?

I think you make a good point that in other cultures, they are probably living like this all the time. I doubt they have a blender or baby food jars in many of the world’s jungles, yet the kids transition fine. I do think though that in many places, they probably do use some kind of mortar and pestle sometimes to create some degree of mush. As a mom, I think that you would have to have that instinct.

Anonymous
Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, if you let it be. And baby-led weaning seems like the natural conclusion to breastfeeding. In my instinct, I knew about babies’ gag reflex, and the whole thing makes a lot of sense about just letting the babies do with food what they would do naturally in order to let them learn to chew.

Certainly I think it takes a lot of trust on the part of the parent when giving a six month-old baby a piece of food that the baby cannot chew yet, but then again, trust is a big component in growing. Hearing the author’s account of how she let her own babies lead the way with eating solid food was re-assuring on several levels, to say the least.

Part of the fear parents have on this (and other) issues is that it is unknown and potentially hazardous. Reading a personal, real-life account of someone who let her child lead the way to his own weaning is exactly the type of story curious parents need to read; especially if the parents do not know anyone personally who has tried baby-led weaning.

Kathy Faust
This was a very interesting article. I had no idea that babies would push stuff out of their mouth by reflex alone. It makes perfect sense though. Obviously, it’s a survival instinct to keep the baby from choking. I must say that I don’t have children and probably never will. However, feeding a baby has been something I’ve thought about from a young age. Personally, I just can’t get used to the idea of breastfeeding. I know that it’s much better for the child, but I just never liked the thought of it. However, I could see using a breast pump to bottle the milk.

I also had no idea that it took so long for babies to wean from the breast. I do like the idea of your method though. I think it’s a wonderful idea to allow babies to explore new tastes and textures without being limited to baby foods. After all, it’s easy to see why babies turn down mashed peas, yet a baby can’t live on pureed fruits alone. I also agree with you that it seems scary to allow a child to gnaw on a pork chop. What if they managed to get a piece loose?